By Nico Lang and Kate Sosin
Usually it takes days or even weeks to get transferred between homeless shelters in New York City. The system moves slowly. But when Stevin Bonifacio told an employee at the Men’s Intake Shelter in Jamaica Center that he was transgender, there was a knock on his door within 15 minutes. A woman informed him that his gender identity was a “liability” for the facility and that he needed to pack up his things and come with her.
Soon, Bonifacio was being escorted into a van, and the shelter’s employees wouldn’t tell him where he was going. However, he quickly recognized the route: Bonifacio was headed to Skyway Men Shelter near John F. Kennedy Airport. Housed in an old hotel, the residence was an extremely bad fit for someone dealing with high levels of anxiety.
“I stayed as long as I could, maybe two or three days,” he tells NewNowNext. “There were planes taking off left and right, and the windows had to be kept cracked open because the A/C wasn’t working.”
Bonifacio went to six additional shelters in NYC to find somewhere it was safe to be himself. At his lowest point, he was rounded up during a 4am warrant sweep and taken to a shelter while he awaited court proceedings. He was handcuffed to a chair and then outed, deadnamed, and misgendered in front of the other male residents.
His crime? An outstanding parking ticket.
Bonifacio has spent four years fighting to ensure other transgender people aren’t discriminated against and mistreated in NYC homeless shelters, and after a tireless battle, he won. On July 15, the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) issued new guidance on trans, nonbinary, and intersex clients after Bonifacio filed a complaint with the NYC Commission on Human Rights (CCHR).
The internal policy is believed to be among the most forward thinking in the nation on trans protections in homeless shelters. The guidelines include allowing transgender clients to self-identify their gender, even if it doesn’t match what’s listed on drivers licenses or state IDs.
“Staff must not ask clients to prove their gender with documentation, physical characteristics, or particular gender expression,” reads a 23-page document authored by NYC’s Office of Policy, Procedures, and Training. “For example, staff should not ask a client to dress ‘more feminine’ because they identify as female or are placed in a women’s shelter.”
The policy also mandates competency training for all DHS employees and contractors on treating transgender clients with dignity.
Hilal Khalil, a staff attorney at the Anti-Violence Project in NYC, which fought Bonifacio’s case, notes that the nation’s largest metropolitan area already had protections in place for transgender people like his client. However, Bonfacio’s case proved the previous guidelines weren’t enough.
“When we’re talking about discrimination, the government can set floors, but they can’t set ceilings,” Khalil tells NewNowNext. “What we’ve done with this policy and procedure is raised the floor of what is possible.”
The DHS confirmed that the incident occurred as described. According to the CCHR, the department has been moving toward a new gender identity policy regardless of Bonifacio’s complaint.
“Mr. Bonifacio’s experience in 2015 was unacceptable, and we hope this settlement provides a measure of solace for the trauma he experienced,” the agency said in a statement to NewNowNext. “We are proud of our collaboration with CCHR, including our ongoing work to ensure that shelter is for everyone, and we are implementing systemic policy changes to affirm that right.”
Sapna V. Raj, deputy commissioner of CCHR’s Legal Enforcement Bureau, said the shelter clearly violated existing law in Bonifacio’s case.
“Mr. Bonifacio was not afforded the most basic dignity and respect when accessing shelter services,” Raj tells NewNowNext. “In what was already a very challenging time in his life, Mr. Bonafacio was [othered], disrespected, and misgendered at every turn.”
One of the most troubling aspects of his experience is that staff at the Men’s Intake Shelter assured Bonifacio that his identity as a transgender man would be confidential. Bonifacio was forced into homelessness after his car broke down and he could no longer work at his delivery job. He went into the shelter system despite fears that others knowing about his gender identity could lead to violence.
The subject only came up because Bonifacio has to list medications he was taking on intake forms at the shelter. “Your secret is safe with me,” the employee assured him.
The worker did not keep that pledge, in violation of pre-existing guidelines.
The Anti-Violence Project has fielded many similar complaints from transgender clients who were denied services in NYC shelters.
“We’ve had clients outed by janitorial staff and then treated horribly by security staff,” Khalil reports. “We’ve had folks who requested safety transfers because they have been outed as trans and then denied those safety transfers or safety transfers taking 30 days or longer.”
Advocates say the policy updates will have a profound impact on NYC’s homeless population, 40% of which is estimated to be LGBTQ.
“When an internal policy change dictates a change in practices for a citywide system, it creates a better, more compassionate, and more dignified city,” Alicia McCauley, a spokesperson for the CCHR, tells NewNowNext. “When a person is going through what may be one of the most vulnerable and humiliating experiences of their lives, they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.”
Today Bonifacio is no longer in the shelter system. He has a small apartment in the Bronx, just down the street from the zoo.
Being routinely victimized in NYC homeless shelters have not diminished his ability to dream big. Bonifacio hopes to expand his shaving company, but in the meantime, he wants to open a neighborhood pizzeria to ensure that other transgender people can find work and aren’t forced onto the streets like he was.
“I feel like the fight is not yet over,” Bonifacio says. “There is still a lot of work to be done.”
Acacia Housing Network, which manages the Men’s Intake Shelter, did not respond to requests from NewNowNext for comment on this story.
This story has been updated to include comments from DHS.